Iraq: Where Do We Go From Here?

By: Greg C. Reeson

Now that the midterm elections are finally over, debate is really heating up in Congress over what steps should be taken next in Iraq. The debate is intense because of the incredible divisiveness over the issue among members of the House and Senate. You see, no one really knows what to do next.

The midterm elections made one thing perfectly clear: the country is unhappy with the way the war has been conducted thus far. Republicans insisted on “Stay the Course” while Democrats blasted the Bush White House and the Pentagon with unrelenting passion and intensity in the weeks and months leading up to November 7th. The Democratic strategy worked and seasoned Republican Representatives and Senators were sent packing in what President Bush called a good old “thumping.”

So we now have new leadership in the Congress, with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi charting the course in the Senate and House, respectively. What’s their plan for Iraq? Good question. The answer, though, depends on who you ask. You see, while Democrats were busy lambasting President Bush over the conduct of the war, they failed to come together as a party with a cohesive strategy for dealing with the mess the Republicans left them.

Ask John Murtha or John Kerry and you will be told that we need to begin the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq. Ask Carl Levin and you will be told that we need to begin some sort of downsizing in the next four to six months, as a sign to the Iraqis that we will not be around forever. Ask Steny Hoyer and you will be told that to pick up and leave Iraq would create a power vacuum that Iran would exploit as part of its quest to be the dominant power in the region. The Democratic Party is bitterly divided over what to do about Iraq, and all indications are that the incoming leadership is content to wait for the report from the Iraq Study Group (ISG) before taking any radical action on the issue.

There is no question that progress in Iraq has been slow. There is no question that the American public expects to see results when their soldiers are put in harm’s way. The consensus in Washington, and in the rest of the country, is that a change in strategy is needed and is long overdue. With that in mind, what are the possible recommendations from the ISG?

At one extreme, we could continue with our current strategy of holding the country together as best we can while Iraqi military and police forces are trained and given responsibility for the security of their nation. Of course, as I have already said, the general consensus is that this strategy is not working and thus would not likely be a recommendation adopted by President Bush. It’s what is known in military circles as the “throw away” course of action.

At the other extreme, we could immediately withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq, telling the current unity government that it is long past time for Iraqis to step up and take charge of their country. The downside to this strategy is that the situation in Iraq would quickly turn into all-out civil war as the Iraqi government collapsed, Shiite death squads engaged in genocide against Iraqi Sunnis, Sunnis responded by attacking Kurds and Shiites in a desperate fight for survival, and Kurds attempted to establish an independent Kurdistan in the north, to include areas once dominated by Iraq’s Sunni minority. Iran would no doubt step in to take advantage of the power vacuum, creating a nightmare scenario for Iraq’s Sunni-dominated neighbors and the west, none of which want to see an Iran-Iraq alliance dominating the region.

The private intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor) speculates that two other recommendations, both somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, may emerge in the ISG’s report. The first is a re-definition of the military’s mission and a redeployment of troops within Iraq. The idea is that U.S. forces would change their mission from security to support. The onus would be placed on Iraqi forces to conduct primary security missions with American troops there for back-up if needed. This change of mission would consolidate U.S. forces at several key locations (probably major airbases such as Al-Asad, Tallil, and Balad) to be in position to reinforce Iraqi troops quickly if they ran into trouble.

The other possible recommendation would involve a re-definition of the political mission in Iraq to allow for direct talks with Iran, and possibly Syria. These talks would be aimed at influencing Iraq’s neighbors to help stem the flow of fighters and weapons into the country and to encourage them to help get the violence under control. Both Iran and Syria have thus far been less than cooperative in helping the United States get control of the situation in Iraq.

Stratfor is betting on a combination of the two middle-of-the-road recommendations that would decrease the presence of U.S. troops and try to get Iran and Syria to act like responsible regional players. No matter what recommendations make their way into the ISG’s report, which is expected to be released sometime next month, it is likely that President Bush will adopt at least some of them.

The country has voiced its opinion and that voice is calling for a new approach. With the appointment of Robert Gates, who was a member of the Iraq Study Group, as Secretary of Defense, the President is probably signaling his willingness to listen to the ISG. To appoint Gates and then reject his group’s findings would make no sense. A new wind is definitely blowing in Washington. The question is where it will take us now.

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